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March 11, 2015
Column #1,750
President Obama’s Best Speech
By Mike McManus

Barack Obama made the most eloquent speech of his presidency in Selma at the 50th anniversary of the bloody march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

He was introduced by Rep. John Lewis, 74, who suffered a fractured skull by Alabama state troopers in that march, as Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse attacked the 600 marchers with billy clubs, which resulted in deaths of three marchers.

“We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice,” Obama declared.

“They did as Scripture instructed, `Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.’”

The President praised those who marched as giving “courage to millions. They held no elective office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities – but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them a century before.”

The bloody march, broadcast on national TV, shocked the nation, enabling President Lyndon Johnson to push for passage of the historic Voting Rights Act a week later. He declared, “We shall overcome,” quoting the famous black motto.

The historic result: there were only 300 African American elected officials in 1965 vs. more than 10,500 now, including, of course, America’s first black President.

“What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”

His speech came only days after the Justice Department published an excoriating indictment of the explicit racism of Ferguson officials, abusive policing that seemed to view people “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

The New York Times reported that nearby towns were worse. Had Michael Brown been killed 500 yards to the southeast he would have been in Jennings, where black defendants are routinely sent to jail for failure to pay minor traffic fines. Four miles away is Calverton Park, where black motorists were stopped at three times their share of the population and forced to pay court fines and fees that account for 40 percent of the city’s general revenues.

In Madison, Wisconsin hundreds marched to protest the killing by a white police officer of yet another unarmed black youth.

At the University of Oklahoma over the weekend, a viral video was broadcast of SAE fraternity brothers singing that there were “no niggers in SAE.” The university closed the fraternity, forcing its members to move out within a day and expelled two leaders of the chant from the university.

Clearly, racism is pervasive in many sectors of the American culture. What can be done about it?

The President recalled that what inspired Selma was an American creed written in our founding documents: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

The crowd applauded, but Obama went on to say, “These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our destiny.”

How can today’s culture make our founding ideals more widely shared?

The most eloquent spokesman this week was not a leader of the NAACP or the National Urban League, but University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former governor and U.S. Senator, who closed the SAE chapter and expelled its racist chant leaders.

“They had to pay a price,” he said on Fox’s Kelly File. “We have zero tolerance for racism. We had to act decisively immediately.”

With regard to the broader culture, he urged that “When we hear racist jokes, we have to stand up and say, `No. We won’t put up with that.’”

He acknowledged that “Subtle forms of racism are deeply ingrained, because we have not diligent in speaking up. We have to make our voices heard that it is not socially acceptable.”

Those two expelled students forgot a key lesson of Scripture: “He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly.”

 

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